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Chinotto soda was invented in the 1930s. Various brands claim to be the first, notably San Pellegrino, but Chinotto had its moment in the sun when the Neri brand began innovative promotions in 1949. Chinotto was the answer, a patriotic alternative, perhaps, to Coca Cola across the watery divide.
But then American Coca Cola came along in the 1960s. It was a sweeter, hipper version of Chinotto - or maybe the behemoth just did its thing and swept over competition in a wave of sweet bubbles - and Chinotto soda fell out of fashion. If there is one thing to learn from this fruit and beverage whose history started in the 16th century, it’s that its reign was not over.
If you ask for a Chinotto at a restaurant or bar, you will be served a fizzy, dark brown drink. It’s sweet with a side of bitterness and an aromatic aftertaste of something undefinable - that chinotto quality. Chinotto, in fact, is not the drink itself, but a fruit.
A chinotto (Citrus aurantium) is a ping-pong ball-sized citrus fruit that grows on an attractive, white-flowering tree often used as an ornamental. They’re shaped similar to typical oranges, but their taste is more tart and sour—and their smell is intense.
Imported by a Ligurian sailor in the 1500s from China (hence its name), it once spread throughout the Mediterranean basin as far as Turkey and Syria. Now, chinotto is confined to Calabria, Sicily, Tuscany, sporadic patches along the French coast, and most notably Liguria. Here its colorful trees are planted from Varazze to Finale Ponente, sharing territory with vineyards cultivated with Vermentino for Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC wines. You could be clued into the fact that chinotto is a fruit, not just a drink, because of Ligurian chinotto: its green orbs (it may be harvested green, yellow, or orange) are pictured on bottles of Lurisia brand soda, which exclusively uses extract from Chinotto of Savona - a Slow Food Presidium.
The reports on the caffeine content of Chinotto are conflicting, but it appears that the most common brands who offer it, like San Pellegrino, do not include caffeine in their recipe.
There are supposed to be brands that are made in other countries which do contain caffeine, but they are likely not true Chinotto, because the true Italian Chinotto does not ever contain caffeine.
This is part of what makes the Chinotto experience so unique when you are looking at trying out a soda that is outside of the normal realm of carbonated treats.